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Council committee set to consider foam food container ban

Updated: 
February 17, 2017 - 9:27am

HILO — A ban on polystyrene foam food containers is back before a County Council committee, following its close loss last year on a deadlocked vote.

Bill 13 is scheduled to be heard at 1:30 p.m. Tuesday by the council Environmental Management Committee. The committee meets at the West Hawaii Civic Center, with public participation also available by videoconference at Hilo council chambers, the Old Kohala Courthouse, Naalehu state office building and Pahoa council office.

The bill failed last year on a 4-4 East Hawaii-West Hawaii divide. The council then decided to put together members of the community with a stake in the matter as a task force to further study it.

Now, there’s a new council, with four new members. Puna Councilwoman Eileen O’Hara, sponsor of the new bill, hopes the new council makeup will give the concept a friendlier reception.

O’Hara, a former county recycling coordinator who also served as executive director of Recycle Hawaii, said her experience showed it’s easier to ban a material at the front end, rather than dealing with it later. Polystyrene, popularly known as “Styrofoam,” is especially difficult to recycle and is a common component of roadside trash, she said Thursday.

“It’s a persistent material in our environment that causes illness and mortality of birds and marine life,” O’Hara said. “I don’t think we want to continue to do that.”

Maui County is contemplating a ban as well.

A similar measure is also moving at the state level. SB 1109 unanimously passed the Committees on Agriculture and Environment and Public Safety, Intergovernmental, and Military Affairs on Feb. 8 and now awaits hearing in two other committees.

Environmental groups, diving clubs and 320 individuals provided testimony supporting the ban at the state Legislature. The Chamber of Commerce Hawaii, Hawaii Restaurant Association, Retail Merchants of Hawaii, Hawaii Food Industry Association and polystyrene manufacturer K Yamada Distributors opposed it.

Proponents of the ban point to potential toxicity of the material, its long lifespan and the space it takes up in landfills, as well as the problem with food and drink containers littering highways and blowing into the ocean. There are biodegradable alternatives, they say.

“Expanded polystyrene foam is made from thermoplastic petrochemical materials containing styrene and may leach styrene into food that comes into contact with the containers, posing potential health hazards for people eating food carried in these containers,” said the state legislative committee report signed by the committee chairmen.

Opponents say the biodegradable alternatives are more expensive, raising the cost to consumers. They say the alternative containers can leak and spill, and may not keep food hot or fresh as long.

“This government mandate would place an undue burden on grocers, restaurants, mom and pop establishments and others as their cost of business would increase,” Tina Yamaki, president of Retail Merchants of Hawaii, said in testimony. “Alternative non-polystyrene containers are far more expensive than the current polystyrene ones being used. In some cases the price can be two to three (times) more.”

The state Department of Health supports having counties enact their own regulations.

“The department proposes that since some of the counties have already conducted studies and are considering a ban on polystyrene food containers, it is recommended the counties be allowed the opportunity to implement a ban on polystyrene food containers which is not unlike the ban on plastic bags,” the agency said in written testimony. “The department can evaluate the effectiveness at the county level before implementing a statewide ban.”

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